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Speed: Kalani Sitake believes BYU’s cover corners are real deal

It’s been a work in progress since 2016 for BYU, recruiting speed to enable flexibility with defense in coverages

SHARE Speed: Kalani Sitake believes BYU’s cover corners are real deal
BYU coach Kalani Sitake watches the action as BYU and UAB play in Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, Dec. 18, 2021.

Brigham Young Cougars head coach Kalani Sitake watches the action as BYU and UAB play in the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl in Shreveport, Louisiana, on Saturday, Dec. 18, 2021. UAB won 31-28.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

They be skating?

On several occasions in fall camp, BYU head coach Kalani Sitake has pointed out the speed of his corners.

It’s a feature that has evolved since he and assistant head coach Ed Lamb agreed on a recruiting game plan.

“Our young corners are super fast, they have tons of speed, and it shows on the field. We just need to make sure that they get defense down and their technique. Being fast is good, but when you are wrong, you are more wrong,” Sitake told the media after photo day last week.

“They definitely have the tools — speed, athleticism, quickness. Now let’s put it in the scope of what we are trying to get done and their role on the defensive end. But, they are looking really good and I am really excited about the future of our corner group.”

Defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki said the game plan to recruit speed came with Lamb and Jenaro Gilford from Southern Utah. It is based on recruiting measurables. That means length and speed. Often that means recruiting corners who have posted track times that legitimize how fast a prospect is. Once that player is in camp, if he doesn’t work out at corner, he is moved to safety. It is not in the plan to sign an undersized corner unless he has special traits.

“We’ve always been a philosophy of recruiting standards. And that’s not just at the corner spot, it’s at every single position. Ed Lamb brought that with him. It’s something we’ve believed in since Kalani and I got here, but it is the influence Ed brought. He’s an intelligent coach who knows what he’s talking about. Now, as we’ve experienced it, we can attest to the narrative.”

Tuiaki said back in 2017 when the Cougars were struggling, it was said BYU doesn’t send guys to the “League.” “Now, all of a sudden, we’re watching NFL games, and I’m like, I gotta watch this game to see this guy and that game to watch that guy.”

The key, said the coordinator, is development. And that’s not unique to BYU. Most teams have to do that — even those with 5-star recruits.

Tuiaki said he was hanging out at a gathering of coaches, including coaches from Georgia and Kentucky as well as Alabama defensive line coach Freddie Roach. Everyone was giving Roach a bad time, teasing him that he has this 5-star recruit and that 5-star recruit, the inference being that he didn’t have to coach very hard.

Roach immediately went on the defense — so to speak — and told the group that those recruits still needed a lot of developmental time to get on the field and contribute. 

“That stood out to me,” said the BYU coach. “I really believe it when Roach said he had to teach talent how to play ball when they come from high school because they are raw athletes. We are a developmental program, we know who we are. We are huge on recruiting kids with track speed that is measured. They have to meet the standard. I believe I have a trained eye and can recognize it on the field, but I can miss it. But going off times, it’s a little bit more set in stone that a kid has speed.”

Tuiaki said there’s always a risk. A guy might get here and is soft and can’t tackle — it doesn’t work out and you move on. “Sometimes it’s a matter of confidence, getting bigger and stronger in the weight room. But if he’s short and I don’t know how fast he is, I’m not going for him. I don’t care how good of tape he has. There’re exceptions, but for the most part I’m not going against our philosophy and take whomever because you have too many misses.”

Getting the talent prepared is a balancing act. 

Talent rises to the top. Experience is important in the process and that’s why Gilford is basically playing four starters at corner — absolutely getting four on the field every game.  He says that the opportunity to play has opened doors in recruiting, but getting them ready is another challenge.

Tuiaki said during games he’ll hear Gilford on the headset asking to switch to zone coverage from man. The reason is he wants to play a guy and get him experience, but having him play man right then at that stage of the game is risky. Gilford wants guys to get game reps and sometimes has to walk a tightrope with his coordinator.

How is consistent speed a commodity then, if the guy can play man?

“It’s everything as a play-caller,” said Tuiaki. “The way that we scheme, the way that we play call, it’s everything if you can’t cover man- to-man, if you don’t have the confidence if you feel like ‘OK, we can maybe do it when this guy’s in, but not him.’ It’s completely changed the way that we call the game.”

If Tuiaki can depend on man coverage, he said it is easier to call a game.

“It’s been a conscious, deliberate effort,” said Lamb of importing more speed the last three recruiting cycles.

BYU simply was not winning in head-to-head recruiting of elite corners. They needed a new pathway.

Said Lamb: “We felt like with Chris Wilcox, Isaiah Herron, Keenan Ellis and D’Angelo Mandell, we were getting there with the speed but those guys are getting older now and we had to have a great recruiting class and I think we have. 

“We got Kaleb Hayes back, we were his first offer. In fact, when we first got here he was in that first recruiting class and it’s nice to get him to transfer from Oregon State. We got Jakob Robinson, a transfer from Utah State, and Gabe Jeudy-Lally (Vanderbilt) has been fantastic and so competitive. And five new freshmen we are really excited about.”


Of course, that is a crucial element of football.

“We do have the evidence, the track times, some concrete evidence we are on the right track,” said Tuiaki.

That will be interesting to see come Sept. 3 on the road in Tampa against South Florida.